There are two competing components to Hunt, a South Korean espionage action thriller set in the 1980s directed by and starring Lee Jung-jae, in how it unravels. This refers not just to the story, which centers on opposing agents KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho (Lee) and Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung), but its tone. First premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and now getting a release through Magnolia Pictures, at times it aspires to be more of a fast-paced action flick where characters get in a variety of chaotic shootouts. Cars are riddled with bullets, entire buildings are blown to pieces, and the body count starts to pile up as the characters rush headlong into each new crisis.
Alongside that, there are a series of plots centered around the KCIA trying to find a mole that is leaking sensitive information and compromising their missions. All they have of this person is a name, Donglim, which feeds paranoia in the agency as everyone becomes a potential suspect. Both Park and Kim, already less than fans of each other, begin competing investigations with the intention of establishing the other as the mole by any means necessary. Betrayals and deception abound in a film that is more than a bit messy in a way that it doesn’t have a full handle on yet still makes up for when it lays all its cards on the table.
It all begins with the opening text that attempts to emphasize that none of this is based in reality and any possible connections to history are merely coincidences. You’ve heard it all before in countless other films, but it feels immediately dubious here when it kicks off with an assassination attempt on the new South Korean president. While it fails, the history of the successful real-life 1979 assassination and the subsequent upheaval in the country looms large. It invites what could be many potential readings of its perspective, all of which the film seems largely ambivalent about as it ultimately just aspires to be an action thriller.
Obviously, even films that strive to be apolitical are still shaped by and intersect with the political. Discussions of defectors, potential reunification, and political unrest are all in the background of Hunt. However, it all gets swallowed up by the spectacle of subterfuge. It is primarily about two men butting heads and trying to come out on top. They are doing so in an organization that often seems less interested in the actual truth as opposed to just getting some sort of answer. It almost reaches comical levels of how committed they are to this. Even if it was coerced through manipulation or torture, an answer is still an answer to them.
And my goodness is there a lot of torture. Characters will openly begin beating confessions out of subjects without blinking an eye. It happens so many times that you almost become numb to it and wonder what exactly is the goal of all this? While this very much could be the point, as we see just how second nature such violence is to agents of the state that they seem rather bored by it, it also starts to feel a bit tired for us as an audience. It seems as though almost everyone is corrupt in one way or another as the competing power players all jostle for control. This isn’t necessarily confusing, as it is all actually aggressively simple to a frustrating degree in retrospect, and is more just maddeningly meandering.
Take when Park and Kim seem to be at each other’s throats, ready to fight in the interrogation room. Suddenly, an alarm sounds and we get notified that a North Korean pilot has entered South Korean airspace. It turns out he’s a defector who affirms the presence of a mole in a manner that feels like it will be significant, only for it to be one of many scenes that becomes extraneous to the prevailing energy of the story. If you focus on trying to parse moments like this to ascertain what it means to the narrative, you’ll find it to be an exercise in futility. Thankfully, it still manages to come together in key moments as it continues on.
While the opening scene is a little scattered, all the subsequent sequences feel much more assured. An opening mission involving a perilous pickup is one of the more dynamic as things quickly go awry with the characters scrambling to get out in one piece. It feels alive and frenetic in a way that recalls some of the stellar chase scenes from 2020’s Deliver Us from Evil, in which Lee also starred, while still being its own thing. As such, this comparison only applies to these moments of action as that former work is far more propulsive and focused than this.
They would make for an interesting double feature, but Deliver Us from Evil has more action panache. There is little hand-to-hand combat in Hunt as guns are the primary weapons of choice. The brutality is made the main focus, smothering what could be more balletic stunt work with explosions. Characters are clumsy, frequently getting caught up in crowds or debris as they try to make their way through the chaos. While a shame and somewhat limiting, the way everything begins to build helps make this more forgivable. For all the ways it can drag and get distracted, the escalations in the final act effectively kick everything up a notch.
Without tipping off what Park and Kim discover, the concluding confrontation that they find themselves in makes all the smaller skirmishes feel almost quaint. There is a bit of narrative whiplash as the film leaves behind much of the intrigue to instead leap headfirst into a fiery finale that almost becomes absurd. While earlier on a character had asked with astonishment “are you really not hurt?” following a gunfight where seemingly everyone else around the main character got blown away, that pales in comparison to this last action sequence. Thankfully, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and knows just how far to push it before winding down. It certainly takes a while to get there and even this explosive ending can’t fully shake off the narrative dead weight that it had to shoulder. Still, for all its many structural flaws that could doom a lesser work, it manages to break free when it counts. Though Hunt won’t become a paragon of action cinema, the moments where it lets loose still pack plenty of potent hits.
Hunt is in theaters and on VOD now.